There are few things in the world of flight simulation as frustrating as flying an aircraft with a keyboard. If you like flight simulation, or want to get more immersed in it, there are simple ways of making the experience of being a home pilot more realistic and enjoyable. Here are some thoughts from me—a former military aviator who has flown in many full-sized aircraft and helicopter flight simulators, as well as spent hundreds of hours in front of a home computer zipping around Meigs Field, KSEA, and the rest of the world in high (and low) performance flight simulator aircraft.
1. Before You Begin
I would recommend starting with the basics before you take off head-first into making a comprehensive flight simulation rig. Flight simulator peripherals aren’t always inexpensive, and they take up space on your desk and in your room. Also, if you are thinking you might get more into flight simulation as you move forward, make sure that your initial investment is something you can build on instead of something you’ll need to replace with better gear in the future.
2. It Starts with the Stick
For many home pilots, a joystick is all you need. This goes back to controlling pitch and roll with the keyboard—it is not fun. The joystick has been ubiquitous since the early days of arcade gaming. In the olden days, you might have a joystick with one button—and that button was usually on the base—not on the stick. Flight simulation helped push the design of joysticks to the ergonomic and amazingly super-programmable models we have today.
3. What Type of Joystick?
Depending on your need for realism, there are two basic types of joystick design: universal and realistic. The universal type sticks are sleek and modern-looking, with superb ergonomics and tons of programmable buttons and switches. A perfect example of the modern joystick is the Thrustmaster T.16000M FCS Flight Stick. One advantage of the universal joystick is maximized programmability.
The other joystick type is molded and patterned after a real-life tactical aircraft control—in the case of the Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog Flight Stick—a Fairchild A-10 Warthog. The Warthog flight stick is also programmable and has an extra-macho cool factor working in its favor, as well.
4. Yoke or No Yokes?
I always found it odd to peer into the cockpit of a modern Airbus airliner and see a sidestick controller. When I fly flight simulator aircraft, especially a big Boeing or even a Cessna 182, I like to fly with a traditional control yoke. For me, flying with a yoke on which I can place two hands, and push and pull to pitch my aircraft, gives another level of realism. Oppositely, flying a Boeing F/A-18 Hornet with a yoke instead of a joystick does not work for me. But, if you are planning on spending hours in the virtual cockpit of a heavy, consider a control yoke.
5. Increase Throttle!
The next peripheral a home pilot might want to add is a throttle. Many joysticks have desk-space-saving built-in throttle capabilities, like the Thrustmaster T.Flight Stick X joystick. However, there is another gain of realism by having a separate throttle quadrant. Another advantage of a throttle is additional programmable buttons for more HOTAS work. The Thrustmaster T. Flight HOTAS X has a detachable throttle quadrant, and the previously mentioned T.16000M is sold with a stick and throttle combo.
To match the Warthog stick, check out this dual-engine HOTAS Warthog throttle quadrant. Maximum awesomeness with toggle switches, afterburner detents (not on the A-10!), buttons, autopilot controls, and more. Save a good chunk of change by getting the Warthog Stick and Throttle together.
6. Yaw is No Yawn
One region of flying with which I never really was satisfied in the world of flight simulation is maneuvering the aircraft in the yaw axis. In an airplane, the rudder controls yaw and the rudder is controlled by pedals. Some joysticks allow a twisting action to control yaw in the simulator, but this takes away from the realism for me. I believe the canceled Comanche helicopter had a twisting cyclic for yaw control, so maybe this is the future.
If you want realistic rudder control, the way to go is with pedals like the Thrustmaster T.Flight Rudder Pedals. Not only do you have yaw control at your feet, you now have realistic wheel brake action for after you land your Boeing 757 long at LaGuardia! The T.16000M can also be had as part of a comprehensive stick, throttle, and pedal combo.
7. Sit Down!
Want to step it up by sitting down? A wheeled office chair would never find its way into an aircraft cockpit, but the Playseat Air Force Flight Simulator Seat might. The seat includes “arm rests” for your joystick (now a side-stick controller like in the F-16 Fighting Falcon or an Airbus) and your throttle quadrant. You can also mount the control stick or yoke conventionally in the center. It also has provisions for hiding wires from your peripherals.
8. I Can’t Hear You
Another way to increase your immersion is through sound (and speech). Speakers are great, but if you want to really feel the hum of the turbofan engines behind you, the chatter on simulator air traffic control frequencies, and not be a bother to your roommates or significant other, headsets are the way to go. Now you can crank up the engine volume, hear the landing gear horn in stereo and, if you have a boom mic, return to base following ATC vectors.
9. Screen or Goggles?
In the past, all at-home flight simulation was done on the screen before you. Now multiple-monitor rigs allow you to completely immerse yourself in simulation with screens dedicated to the outside view and interior control panels. The options are too numerous to mention here, but feel free to fill your room with flat-screen monitors and go flying!
Or, if you want to truly immerse yourself in the 3D world of flight simulation, skip the monitor and strap on a pair of VR gaming goggles over your leather flight helmet! Now you can look down into the cockpit or over your shoulder to see if the enemy bandit is closing in for the attack.
10. Push Realism
Are you a casual home pilot who likes to dabble in the world of flight simulation? Or, are you logging dozens of hours every week flying around the world for a virtual airline? It is completely up to you how much realism you want to add via peripherals and even die-hard flight sim pilots can make due with just a single joystick while others convert entire home offices into a virtual cockpit. How have you immersed yourself in flight simulation? Let us know, in the Comments section, below!